Anwar Congo committed mass murders in Indonesia after a paramilitary organization took power in 1965. They destroyed communists, which was defined by anyone who was ethnic Chinese, an intellectual, and frankly out of the norm. More than one million people were killed in less than a year, a genocide that the country widely accepted and to this day still treats as a saving grace. Congo wants to celebrate his life’s work, now an old man, hoping to make a film centering on the way he killed people. He says that it’s based upon old Hollywood films; one of the things he hated the most about communists was how they wanted to take away American films from Indonesian cinemas. He wouldn’t have that; him and his gangsters insured it wouldn’t.
Gangster means “free man,” as Congo often repeats throughout the film. It holds less and less of an impact the more we hear that, an effect employed by Oppenheimer through masterful directing. He rarely communicates directly to the audience, often allowing the products to speak for themselves. These are deplorable human beings, after all, ones who indulge in “mafia movie” stereotypes, as they often mention. They strangle men with piano wire to avoid blood, and discuss how efficient it is in killing a man. We see the way the people in the community celebrate these acts of atrocity, as if it saved their lives. They’ve been brainwashed. I’m sure they’d make the same argument for us, but I have to say that Congo’s points are often met with logical fallacies that don’t work in his favor. He’s a corrupt man, maybe even with a corrupt soul.
Yet in that human element is where The Act of Killing becomes truly impactful. Congo is made out as a vicious, terrible man, as are his disciples; the paramilitary organization often preaches saving its people, but the communists were never cruel to their country. That’s mentioned by Congo and his other men, and they say this film will show people that. It does. Congo, however, seems to be haunted by what he’s done, as evidenced by a reversal of direction by Oppenheimer. Where he showed Congo gleefully describing his murders earlier in the film, he has him do the same in the film’s closing scene; it’s less energetic, and Congo begins vomiting. He’s sick with himself as a person.
This is a man ravaged by what he’s done; he even refers to the communists as human beings now, where before he would address them like scum. Congo watches back a scene he shot where one of his men strangles him, and Congo becomes weak and uneasy. He’s realizing what he’s done and become. He asks Oppenheimer, “Have I sinned?” The remarkable turnaround on the level of human emotion Congo displays almost asks for sympathy, but we mustn’t forget that this is a sinful man. Not just in the eyes of God, as the movie often mentions, but in the eyes of other humans. He’s destroyed a country’s foundation, with the direction providing us an unrelenting look at its nature. This is not only an outstanding documentary; it’s unforgettable.
Grade: ★★★★★ (out of 5)